Whale Pass timber sale moves forward, leaving residents with questions

Friends of Whale Pass
Members of the Friends of Whale Pass. (Photo courtesy of Maranda Hamme)

Despite an outcry from residents in the small Prince of Wales Island town, a nearly 300-acre timber sale in and around the city of Whale Pass is poised to go forward. After months of advocating for changes to the plan, residents are now worried about what their town will look like once cutting begins.

Whale Pass is a quiet town, tucked out of the way on the northern tip of Prince of Wales Island. It’s a good place to escape the hustle and bustle of larger communities. James Greeley lives in town.

“People are coming to Whale Pass to get away from all that, for fishing adventures and such,” Greeley said.

The city’s 100-some residents hunt and fish and rely on natural resources.

But Greeley expects an upcoming 292-acre timber sale to change a lot about his town. Greeley said he’s concerned log trucks will clog up the only road in and out of town and bring this quiet community a steady stream of mechanical noise. He explained he’s concerned the planned clearcut on a hillside overlooking town could also hurt the town’s status as a destination for fishermen and other tourists.

And he’s also worried about what it will do to residents’ way of life. There are concerns about how the clearcut might affect fish and deer habitat — even though the state’s best interest finding dismissed those concerns.

The sale could become final on April 26. And residents who live on the hillside worry that their houses will face landslides, floods and strong winds.

Greeley lives in one of those houses, and he can see the orange tape marking the clearcut boundary from his kitchen window.

“Will I be able to walk my dog again?” Greeley asked. “I don’t know.”

The state’s Division of Forestry is conducting the sale. Southeast Area Forester Greg Staunton said he expects the hillside to recover quickly.

“It’s been quite a while since they’d seen a cleared hillside in their viewshed, but it was — it will be similar to what they’re already looking at, probably five to 10 years’ time,” he said.

Staunton said his division listened to the outpouring of opposition for the sale — specifically, how close the boundary comes to some homes — but he explained it just wasn’t feasible to push it back.

“We approached the design of the sale with a perspective that we wanted to maximize that footprint for the intended purpose of the land base, which is for forest management,” he said.

But Staunton said the plan does incorporate wildlife corridors to minimize the impact on deer and fish.

Katie Rooks is a policy analyst for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. She thinks the most surprising thing about the sale is that, despite how much criticism it received, it’s still moving forward. The Division of Forestry published its land use plan last week.

“After the moving appeals by the people of the town, I think we were just shocked at the lack of empathy,” she said. “This is public land, and the public overwhelmingly responded in opposition to this sale.”

Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, and former Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, both opposed the sale.

The recent forest land use plan included comments from both representatives.

“I respectfully request that you modify the Draft Forest Land Use Plan for the Whale Pass timber sale and return to the drawing board with the City of Whale Pass to reach a reasonable compromise that will benefit both the State of Alaska and residents of Whale Pass,” Kriess-Tomkins wrote.

“Whale Pass is Alaska’s newest established city as of 2017 and does not yet have the infrastructure needed to provide utilities such as water and sewer,” Ortiz wrote. “Residents rely on naturally occurring resources. However, clearcutting the land above their homes would negatively impact the watersheds those households primarily rely on.”

Greeley heads the group Friends of Whale Pass, which has led local opposition to the sale. He submitted several written comments and proposals to the division, and participated in the hearing process.

“It’s just very frustrating, very disappointing,” he said.

Greeley feels like the state ignored Whale Pass.

“From my first comment (the state) was basically just saying, ‘Shut up and take it,’” Greeley said. “So I guess that’s what we have to do. So that’s great to know.”

If a request for reconsideration is not filed, the sale will be made final on April 26.

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